Off the beaten path

Originally published Nov. 14, 2014

The sun beats down as cool October winds rattle tent poles and shake leaves from their branches. Townspeople gather to exchange casual chitchat as they pick through potatoes and decide whose kale is the freshest and greenest. Children run about and play, enjoying the last sunny warmth of the season before autumn tightens its grip. The Farmers Market in Orono is in full bloom and boom.

Marketgoers are drawn to one stand. Perhaps it’s the stacks of squash in front of the tent that entices them to look further. Maybe it’s the promise of grass-fed organic beef steaks making their triumphant return to town. Or maybe it’s the service – friendly, fast and perfectly quirky. And yes, this is where the kale is always the best. That is, of course, if you can find the kale behind the mounds of potatoes, onions, carrots, Swiss chard and cabbage.

Just barely taller than her farm stand – her brown hair pulled back, her hands fitted in thick, wool gloves – she greets her customers with a smile and secures them with a laugh, maybe two, before fixing them up with 30 pounds of onions or a five pound bag of organic fingerlings.

She’s Rachel Katz, a 34-year-old New Jersey native, mother and one of the many female farmers making a difference in Maine’s towns and cities.

“I like performing a vital need to my community,” she says of her role as a farmer.

She might not be the typical portrait of a farmer, your average American Gothic. A University of Vermont graduate with a degree in political science and a concentration in theory, she stands at her booth in waiting, fiddling with an unexpected technological adornment: a bright blue iPhone.

But she’s never been one to follow the crowd.

Anarchy

It brings to mind visions of rebellion and dissent, the Red Scare and anti-government protests, retreat from modern society. But this isn’t anarchy in its literal meaning. It’s greener than that. It was in Burlington, Vermont in 2002 that Katz got her first taste of separatism. After graduating from UVM, she joined a local anarchist group. But she doesn’t like to call it that.

“It was a group of people in Burlington who were doing a lot of social justice work. And a lot of them were anarchists, meaning they don’t want to give up their proxy, they want to participate fully in the society in which they live,” Katz explains. “Part of that is food production.”

The newly graduated Katz credits the group with her blossoming success as a farmer. They taught her about farming, self-sufficiency and the power of local foods. Going against the very organic grain, political science degree in hand, she packed her bags and headed for California to work on a farm.

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Oct. 18, 2014. Katz restocks the front of her stand, keeping every carrot in line and each cauliflower from falling over. Alan Bennett

The Maine Edge

One would think California has it all with its sprawling vineyards and seemingly endless fields, but for some it lacks that feeling of home. And, while Maine isn’t exactly known for being a leader in many ways, farming is an exception to that. Famous for its vast potato fields, distinct variety of blueberry and exceptionally fertile soils, it’s a farmer’s haven.

Right: Oct. 18, 2014 – Katz restocks the front of her stand, keeping every carrot in line and each cauliflower from falling over.

Having felt misunderstood in California with what she calls her New Jersey “tough love and sarcastic approach to life,” Katz moved to Maine in 2005  when she joined the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association apprenticeship program, which kickstarted her nearly 10-year career in the state.

Katz says she’s drawn to Maine because younger farmers are sprouting up all over the state, including her. And not just all farmers – women are reaping the benefits of Maine’s naturally fertile lands, and they’re doing so more than other states. Forty-one percent of Maine farmers are women, according to the Maine Farmland Trust. This is compared to 31 percent nationally.

Katz is one of them, and she’s proud of it.

“Sexism hurts all of us,” she says, describing how it is important for her as a woman to be involved in this line of work.

Perhaps one of Maine’s biggest advantages is its embracement of locavore culture, which supports a rich agricultural community in the state.

“There are so many ways in which Maine is backwards, but it seems to be on the cutting edge of the local food situation,” Katz says.

It’s true – Maine has believed in the local food movement for some time. Katz’s farm, Terranian Farm in Troy, is certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country. Founded in 1971, MOFGA aims to support local farms and communities through organic farming practices.

Katz says access to land is a big issue in farming. In California, the farm where she worked nearly a decade ago is still for sale for $3.3 million. But, she says, Maine is one of the last places in the Northeast where land is even semi-affordable.

Key to what sets Katz’s farm apart from the rest is the fact it is one of the few remaining entirely horse-powered farms in the country. The gigantic horses – of which Katz’s largest weighs 2,000 pounds – till the soil and tow machinery across the entire 3-acre farm.

But she’s not too proud to ask for help.

A little help…

Despite her strong footing, Katz admits being a successful farmer isn’t as easy and glamorous as it might at first sound. Calculating and paying off input costs, traveling 45 minutes from Troy to Orono – among other places – every week and having to pay herself, she acknowledges that sometimes self-sufficiency isn’t always attainable.

“It’s almost like a fool’s errand trying to be self-sufficient. I don’t really think it’s possible,” she says of how she would rather trust professional seed growers instead of trying to rely on her recycled ones.

And, while she does grow a lot of different vegetables, she admits that any dreams of trying to run America’s largest, most productive organic farm are just detrimental to the business.

“Generalism used to be much more important, but when you spread yourself too thin, you can’t be as good at any individual thing,” she says.

… Goes a long way.

And while her spirits may seem down, they’re certainly not out. For Katz, it’s not about the money or business, and it’s not even really about the farm. It’s about providing a better life for her and her family.

“We eat everything, every different kind of thing that we produce,” she says. “And I think my kids are more likely to eat it because we produce it. My son particularly has always taken great pride in the food that we grow.”

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Oct. 18, 2014. The fruits — or vegetables, rather — of a successful harvest. Alan Bennett

As for the community and the state? She doesn’t care if she has to pay for the hundreds of thousands of seeds she needs, as long as it means she can work doing what she does best: helping people and giving back. For her, it’s the power of food that she enjoys the most, and it’s what motivates her to work tirelessly day after day.

“I like that people trust me with feeding their families,” she says, packing a 30 pound bag of onions for one customer and bringing it to him around the front of her stand before she returns to that blue iPhone – from which, by the way, she runs her entire farm and community-supported agriculture business.

And while she still may not b e the tallest farmer in Maine, Rachel Katz stands tall in the eyes of the agricultural world for being a leader among women farmers. A former anarchist turned provider for the community, she’s taken life off the beaten path.

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